Roti Canai: A Favourite Of Many

roti1THIS post came about as I was thinking about Malaysian popular dishes and I remember how Jeff was totally going bonkers about Roti Canai.

It made me decided to do some researches of this famous food which is believed to have Indian origin and how it has been assimilated over the decades to become a part of us – Malaysians.

One of Malaysia’s most favourite breakfast meal, roti canai is essentially a piece of dough which is kneaded, thrown, flattened, oiled and cooked on a flat iron skillet. Eaten hot with either lentil, fish or chicken curry; or even with sugar or condensed milk.

Well, roti in the Malay word for bread. If you enter a grocery store or market in Malaysia and ask for “roti” you would get a loaf of western bread.

Some say “canai” comes from the word “Chennai” which is of course the original name of the city of Madras in India (and which is of course the name it is called now again). So roti canai literally means “bread from chennai”.

Roti_02It was said that the dish was brought over from India by the Indian Muslims, also known as “mamaks” in Malaysia. It has become synonymous with Malaysia that some say it is easier to find the dish in Malaysia then it is in India.

The other school of thought says that the dish is of Malaysian origin. Created by the mamaks in Malaysia to adapt to local tastes, people who subscribe to this story say this is why it is difficult to find this dish in india (because it is not an indian dish).

Canai in Malay cooking terms, is to stretch and flatten dough, alluding to the process of making the roti canai, which begin as balls of dough and end with a flat, stretched out bread.

Irrespective of which theory you subscribe to, you can’t deny that roti canai is heaven to eat! Ask Jeff, roti canai would be his first hunt (of meal) whenever he is here!

rotiTraditionally, it is a breakfast dish, best taken with that other favourite teh tarik or stretched/pulled tea, a sweet milky and frothy tea served in a glass.

I remember when I was small, mom would make our very own roti canai. As it was more economical feeding six growing up children by preparing it herself.

Mom would prepare the dough before we went to bed, left it overnight to let the dough settle and started kneading it first thing in the morning, so it we all would have our home-made crispy roti canai with chicken curry before we left for school at 7am…

It has been decades since I last tasted mom’s home-made roti canai.

Nowadays we simply just bought it over from the nearby shop.

But to find a really good roti canai you may have to try out different places because a good roti canai should be light, soft and buttery on the inside, flakey and slightly crunchy on the outside.

It ought to be singed in places, without being seriously burned. While a simple one should come round and puffy, the elaborate editions ought to be square, with folded corners to keep the stuffings from running onto the standard blue plastic plate.

The main difference between rotis is in the skill of the man who makes it.

roti4Historically, with the arrival of Indians in British Malaya in large numbers by the turn of the last century, Indian street vendors began pushing what back home is called a paratha (the paratha malabari being the most exact equivalent). It almost certainly was showcased first in the arrival ports of Penang and Singapore, where roti canai still retains the name roti prata; in India “roti” refers to any sort of bread. By the 1920s, the dish was established throughout the Malayan peninsula, including the new administrative center, Kuala Lumpur.

Traditionally roti canai is served with dhal (lentil curry) or any type of curry, such as mutton or chicken curry. However, the versatility of roti canai as the staple lends itself to many variations, either savoury or sweet, with a variety of toppings and fillings, which includes eggs, banana, sardines and onion.

Nowadays, if you ask for just roti in a mamak shop, it will be understood to mean roti canai.

Now most roti canai have been amplified by stuffings. Familiar variations include roti telur (with egg fried to death inside), roti pisang (chock-full of creamily melted bananas) and roti boom (sweetened with syrup added to the dough before cooking).

Recent innovations include roti Milo (sprinkled with Milo chocolate powder, a Malaysian staple) and roti banjir (banjir meaning flood – the roti is soaked in plenty of gravy). Any and all styles make a perfect accompaniment to endless, laid-back conversation about the country’s latest political scandals, fueled by teh tarik (so-called “pulled” tea with condensed milk, poured until it forms aerated bubbles).A